Updated: 6 days ago
Burning, tingling, numbness, stabbing, and shooting pains are common symptoms for people with peripheral neuropathy, the most common type of nerve pain. Symptoms can be challenging — even debilitating when chronic.
Peripheral neuropathy occurs when a deficiency of vitamin B12 damages nerves located outside the brain and spinal cord (peripheral nerves). It affects an estimated 20 million people in the U.S. alone — and researchers feel this estimate is probably conservative, as many people tend to disregard the early warning signs of nerve damage.
Peripheral neuropathy can manifest in various ways and can be hard to manage. NSAIDs, opioids, and other standard pain medications often don't work to control the pain and have their own adverse side effects.
But hope is here, in the form of vitamin B12. There's growing evidence that B12 may effectively help treat peripheral neuropathic pain.
1. What is vitamin B12, and how does it benefit us?
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is a water-soluble nutrient vitamin. It's essential in forming our DNA and keeping our red blood cells and nervous systems healthy and happy. It supports the growth and maintenance of nerve cells and helps to prevent forms of anemia that can weaken us and compromise our immune systems.
B12 occurs naturally in animal-based foods such as meat, fish, and dairy. However, certain people may be at risk of not getting enough B12 in their diet, like vegans, vegetarians, or people with diabetes, a medical condition that can block B12 absorption. Some older adults can also become B12-deficient.
2. Why does B12 deficiency cause neuropathic pain?
A critical role of B12: it helps us produce myelin, the protective coating surrounding the nerves. In a body without enough myelin, nerves can become exposed and more vulnerable to damage.
Peripheral neuropathy frequently begins as tingling or numbness in the feet (both at once) and can then progress to affect the nerves in the legs, arms, and hands. Symptoms may come and go. However, in severe cases, patients could feel burning or stabbing pain or experience weakened muscles and loss of reflexes and balance.
A deficiency in B12 can also affect small blood vessels, which supply nutrients to the nerves. This causes oxidative stress as harmful molecules, known as free radicals, damage the cells and tissues of the body as well as consistent or prolonged inflammation, which can impair nerves and worsen nerve pain.
3. How does B12 relieve painful peripheral neuropathy?
The good news: Although there's no known cure for permanent damage caused by peripheral neuropathy, dosing with B12 may help maintain healthy nerve function in people with a B12 deficiency and help relieve pain.
What studies have found to date: B12 can help repair damage caused by neuropathic pain and improve nerve function and transmission. It can also help reduce long-lasting inflammation by stopping the production of pro-inflammatory molecules. And it can act as an antioxidant, neutralizing free radicals and protecting nerves.
In research released in 2021 in Greece, patients with diabetic neuropathy, who supplemented with B12, significantly reduced pain and improved nerve function. Another European Journal of Neurology study found that supplementing with B12 improved sensory and motor function in patients with peripheral neuropathy of unknown causes.
Vitamin B12 consistently shows promise across several smaller studies, particularly with other vitamins and supplements. Nevertheless, scientists advocate for more extensive research efforts to continue studying how the vitamin may effectively help treat peripheral neuropathy.
B12 comes in different forms, each with unique properties and benefits. Typically, a B12 deficiency can be treated by injections of vitamin B12. High doses of oral B12 can also help. The prescribing doctor may recommend the best suitable form depending on a patient's health condition. Specifically for neuropathy, B12 shots can be injected directly into the affected areas for immediate relief.
For patients who struggle with neuropathic pain and don't find relief with traditional medications, B12 supplements may be a promising treatment option, given the vitamin's potential benefits and relatively low risk of adverse effects.
Of course, before starting this or any new treatment, consult your doctor, particularly if you have underlying medical conditions or take other medications.
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